New Year, New You?

One of my favorite and most despised commercial seasons is just after winter holiday, right around the start of new year. We see advertisements for new plastic containers that hold all of the garbage we just bought and don’t need and–among others–we hear the dulcet tones of one Jennifer Hudson (insert other celebrities: Jessica Simpson, Mariah Carey, Kristie Alley, and so on), singing about a renewed sense of self post-whatever-weight-loss-package she endorses. These advertisements tell us things we believe we need to hear: this is your year, you will take time for yourself, you will change, you will exercise, you will use that gym membership, and you will start eating only organic foods. Except when you travel. And that gym is so crowded. And your knees hurt from the new exercise regimen. The list can go on and on.

No, I’m not so terribly cynical to believe change isn’t possible. And I confess that I, too, am guilty of the self-improvement scams that so-often pervade the month of January. What’s more, I’m guilty of these scams twice a year: January and August.

August is for teachers like January is for everyone else in the Western World.

I am not quite a teacher and not quite not a teacher. I’m a graduate instructor at a public university and, on average, I teach two classes per semester, four-five classes in a year, depending on summer availability. I teach mostly introductory level composition and literature courses, but there is some wiggle room to teach something new or different each year.

I sort of wish it could be this way…

Every year I do implement new pedagogical strategies; I am, after all, a relatively new teacher and there is always room to grow, adapt, change, even for the most experienced instructor.

But at what point do we get real with ourselves?

I mean, where is the line between rational points of self-improvement in one’s pedagogical practices and a total meltdown of I’m-going-to-change-everything-about-myself-and-the-way-I-teach? Can we not also find this line somewhere between drinking less soda and renovating your house for a new home gym?

Syllabus Season

The past several weeks have gotten me thinking about the varying degrees of change we seek at the start of a new semester or school year. Because of the delightfully collaborative nature of Twitter–just see #syllabus–it is here that I find the most helpful and (only sometimes) the most baffling of instructor calendars, lesson plans, syllabi, and more.

It’s these baffling ones that make me think, Oh, this must have really worked for you, but it doesn’t seem like it’s going to work at all for me. Sometimes this doubt in a lesson plan or a particular practice is just that: doubt. Or fear. Maybe even worries about doing something new and doing it badly.

But sometimes, I think, this doubt is justified. Student population, funding of the program, location and timing of the course, etc. can all influence how a class is taught, how students learn the material, and how we teach it.

Adapting Lessons

There’s already so much written about incorporating technology in the classroom and re-imagining the nature of university education, but it can be quite challenging to adapt lessons, units, and even entire classes to incorporate something new or fit a new model of teaching.

Sometimes we adapt lessons because we have to–such as moving to a new institution, recognizing that the classroom you’re teaching in doesn’t have functional computers, etc. But sometimes we change things–and when I say “we” here I really, sadly mean “I”–because we think we should, or we see other lesson plans and we think, “Wow, that looks so cool and incredible. I should be doing stuff like that!” 

This is probably one of my largest regrets in adapting a lesson. In my first year of teaching, I was living and working in Illinois for the first time, having just finished a pedagogy course with what felt like far more experienced instructors, and I used a “Department-Approved Assignment” without fully understanding the mechanics of said assignment. It was lazy teaching on my part and turned out to be a very teachable moment for myself.

Do It With Purpose

When I attempt to adapt a lesson or a class to a new model, I try to think about what a mentor once asked me: Why? This question was not, of course, an effort to make me feel badly about trying something new, but instead forced me to articulate why I was making particular pedagogical choices. It wasn’t just “technology for technology’s sake,” or even “multimodality” because it’s a decent buzzword. Instead, it’s a reminder that as an instructor you make all kinds of choices in the development of a course and you have to see some of those through, even if they’re huge flops; it’s OK, as long as you know why you’re doing it.

If you’re still relatively green like me remember the mantra, Good Teachers Borrow, Great Teachers Steal. This is not to say do what I did in my first year of teaching, but instead read what’s current in your field in terms of pedagogy and figure out what does or does not work for you.

Final Thoughts

Before you think I’m just a big fat contrarian about weight loss, change, and new teaching practices, let me re-emphasize my love of organization, self-improvement, learning, and so on. I’m very interested to know what healthy practices you’re utilizing this summer to prep for your classes.What always stays the same, no matter what? What changes do you make? How do you ensure that those changes aren’t like, say, New Year’s resolutions (where the retention is usually until February)?

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Mosquito Bites; Or, Working From Home

Obvious Poster

I’ve been away for a minute, and this could strike you as a possibly obvious post: I am curious to know how you negotiate between work and family time? Where do you–if at all–sacrifice? Is it possible to strike a balance between the two? I’m interested to know how other academics or graduate/professional students find opportunities to work, but also enjoy time with their family and friends outside of academia? This topic has been discuss thoroughly by established scholars, such as Greg Semenza’s Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century and others, but I wonder how fellow graduate students and burgeoning scholars are handling it. Is there simply no room for negotiation? The short answer is probably no, but let me dream!

Lots of New Stuff Happening

As many of you may know, I have the opportunity to research in Ireland, England, and Scotland for the next academic year through the Joseph C. Gallagher Fellowship. A task that is both exhilarating and anxiety-producing, as I am in a critical moment in my PhD program. But alas, that is for another blog post. More immediately, I have just completed a cross-country drive from Tucson, Arizona (had to bring a road tripping buddy from somewhere slightly further west than Albuquerque because I’m an idiot) to Pamlico County, North Carolina, where I grew up and where my parents still live. If you’re wondering why I reference the entire county as my travel destination instead of a town or city, then you clearly haven’t been there. And you might be too citified to ever make it.

From Univ of New Mexico’s beautiful, sunny campus…

To Trinity College Dublin’s excellent library…

With, well, a month-long stop with my parents on the way…

This journey has been an emotional one. Sure, I had a blast catching up with some old friends along the way, making stops where I know folks from my MA program and elsewhere. Also, listening to Harry Potter on audiobook made the trip wonderfully relaxing and quick, despite the surreal experience of listening to young British children discuss Christmas dinner and butter beer at chilly Hogwarts when in reality I was primarily driving through a Mad Max-esque desert scene:

At least the flying car aspect relates to Harry Potter…

Some other, not-so-great aspects of the trip included staying with a few old friends who were oh-so bohemian and left the front door/windows open for North Carolina swamp mosquitos, engorged with the blood of innocent travelers. Long story short: I look like I have chickenpox, so it’s basically the worst.

That being said (I REALLY needed a platform from which to complain about the mosquito bites), I know that for the next academic year things would be very different for me. I will not have the comforts of my home institution, nor can I readily pester advisors in person; instead, I leave my possessions in a 5X5 storage unit in New Mexico, my car in North Carolina with my very generous parents, and I will be gone from what I had gotten to know.

But What About ME?? (should be read in most annoying, privileged voice on the planet)

Luckily, my concerns about leaving Albuquerque were mostly about what I would arrive to when I reached my parents’ house. I, like many people at similar points in their academic careers, read and write every day. Sometimes I dread it, sometimes I don’t. I just know for my sanity I have to keep to a fairly diligent reading and writing schedule.

Often when I visit my parents for a week over the holidays I visit other family members, play games, and maybe even going to the movies. This is not, however, a holiday. I’m in between living situations before I leave for Dublin at the beginning of September and my lease ended in Albuquerque just before I left. I’m here for a month and a half. Again, I have lovely and supportive parents who generously offered for me to stay with them for a month and a half, but I am concerned about deadlines and completing projects that are due in mid-September.

I have only been here five days but so far I’ve found opportunities to work in the mornings, my favorite time to write. I’ve read a great deal about how to foster an effective workspace, but there is little written about doing this in someone else’s home, as a guest. Possibly because it’s incredibly rude, but that’s for another post.

My father is retired and my mother is a school teacher out for the summer, so both of my parents are typically around the house, watching television loudly in the other room, or just being the type of people who knock on a door a lot to see if anyone is in a room. There are about four available hours each morning that my parents are out of the house, each dealing with separate commitments. At these times I slip away into my sister’s old bedroom where I’ve snatched an old table and chair from the living room (so far no one has asked for it back…) and created a makeshift office space. These hours have worked perfectly to get started on my writing each morning, and when my parents return with loud television and constant door knocking, I’m normally so immersed in what I’m doing that I don’t notice.

Once I’ve dealt with the humiliation of being an adult woman who has moved (albeit temporarily) back in with her parents, the whole situation has actually worked quite beautifully.

What Gives, If Anything?

I seems as though something has to suffer here, right? Do I have to decide between family time and work time? Yes and no, I think. I think it’s important to spend time with my family (who I will not see in a year), but also for my mental wellness I need to continue reading and writing. I talk a big game about maintaining a life outside of academia, one with exercise and hobbies, but I find it’s easier said than done. The truth is that I really like working on my research. I really like reading and writing all of the time, but this becomes challenging when around people who you want to chat with and be a version of yourself that doesn’t read, write, write, and read some more.

Again, I want to spend some quality time with my parents. How many people who live across the country are lucky enough to spend a month and a half with family? Several of my friends will roll their eyes here, but I do like spending time with my parents. I have, of course, had to insist multiple times to the clerk at the local grocery store that I’m not “moving back home,” but instead preparing for a year abroad, but who knows what people think….

One of my biggest goals upon returning home was to continue working just as I do at my own home, but that is clearly impossible. As anyone who was raised by anxiety-ridden parents (yay, it’s genetic!) and in a particularly small home will tell you, privacy is hard to come by. Further, because I rarely see my family and I know I will not be home for the holidays, I find myself combatting guilt anytime I decide to work rather than play a game of rummy.

Thoughts?

If you have a bit of advice on this subject, feel free to comment below. I’m interested to learn how burgeoning scholars negotiate between essential family/personal time and essential work time. Thanks!

Ch-ch-ch-Changes: Transitioning from MA to PhD; Albuquerque to Boston

Diana Filar is a doctoral student in the Department of English at Brandeis University, with a particular interest in the contemporary immigrant novel. She received her MA at University of New Mexico this past spring semester and will be sorely missed! Follow her on Twitter @DianaFilarski

Ch-ch-ch-Changes

When Kelly asked me to guest blog, I knew immediately what I would write about: this summer’s transition period and the time in between my Master’s program and PhD program. Right now, I am still in Albuquerque, where I got my MA at the University of New Mexico (and met Kelly!). I have plenty of great things to say about UNM: I met a lot of brilliant and helpful faculty, I learned what going to grad school actually means, and I filled in a lot of gaps in my literary periodization knowledge. Basically, I got a clue and confirmed that I want to pursue an academic career.

And I will also miss Road Runners. These guys are too cool.

Unfortunately, my long term boyfriend and I don’t love Albuquerque (mountains, chile, and weather aside), and when applying to PhD programs last year, I put a lot of emphasis on place (as well as the other important factors, of course!). Whether or not the experts advise for or against this was less relevant to me than knowing I had to live somewhere for the next five years while getting my doctorate – a difficult feat.

So at the end of this month, I am moving to the Boston area to attend Brandeis University for my PhD in American literature. I am from the east coast and lived in Boston before, and I have to say it’s one of my favorite places. I also was lucky enough to visit Brandeis before accepting their offer and really got the sense that it was the right place for me. That being said, there are a few elements of this transition period that are giving me a lot to think (read: stress) about.

First Things First

To be honest, I haven’t spent as much time thinking about school, my program, new colleagues and advisors, and classes (well, I have spent SOME time thinking about it) as I have been trying to plan my move. Moving across the country is an endeavor, and I know, having already done it once in just a Honda Civic with my boyfriend and all of our stuff. Relocation of any kind makes the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory Scale as one of the most anxiety producing life events. We plan on being in Boston by August 1st so we can get settled and acclimated before school begins at the end of the month (on my birthday!). That is three weeks away, and we still don’t have a place to live. We are searching and applying like mad, but things keep not working out or falling through or being too much money (I could go on a rant about rental pricing, neoliberalism, and gentrification on a grad student’s budget but that’s another post). Right now, having a home is priority number one.

The other details of the move are in various states of completion. We have a rental truck and a dolly to tow our car. I know where to get free moving boxes. Our friends said they’d help. And I won’t be working the week before we leave so all the packing can be complete. On the negative side, we need to actually do that packing, get our current apartment in tip top shape so our landlord will return the security deposit to its rightful owners, and plan the road trip – where to stop, what to see, where to stay. I wish I got a reward for moving successfully cross-country twice in three years, but alas.

Writing Goals

Aside from all the moving responsibilities, summer is usually a time when academics, including myself, overcommit to a lot of projects and self-promises about those projects’ completion. Kelly has written about the writing group we are in, and like everyone else, I had a bunch of writing goals for those lazy, hazy days of summer. I stayed somewhat realistic based on deadlines and tried not to cry about how writing emails to landlords and realtors counted as writing.

That being said, all my goals for the summer were all near completion even before “vacation” began. The transition aspect of writing comes in when I consider that the people (professors, mentors, writing group friends) who helped me get my articles and projects to their current states will no longer be as available to help me once I start at Brandeis. They will all still be at UNM or elsewhere, and while I know I could reach out, I also know I need to be making new professional relationships.

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K Bye, UNM!

But how do I explain what I did in a paper for a class in Spring 2014 and the various stages that essay has been through and the (very helpful!) reader responses from a journal rejection to a person who doesn’t know me and my overarching research goals–i.e. supposed dissertation topic. It’s daunting to consider editing this above mentioned rejection in Boston. It’s almost as if my ideas have to move along with my physical body. They also need to find a home in this new place. If anyone has any advice on how to carry writing or ideas over from one institution to the next, I’m all ears. Otherwise, I will flail under I figure it out myself.

Differences between Programs

At UNM, I was awarded a Teaching Assistantship which offered me a stipend and full tuition remission. For this, I am very grateful as so many standalone Master’s programs do not provide this kind of funding. That being said, as much as I love teaching (especially this past year, once I got the hang of it), I am glad that I won’t have to teach in my first year at Brandeis. I can’t help but think ALL THAT TIME FOR READING. JUST FOR ME. This may sound selfish, but I really only started graduate school for me, and I think if anyone starts for anyone or anything but themselves, they may be getting into some trouble.

I can’t help thinking that I WILL HAVE SO MUCH FREE TIME (for reading!) even though I know in my heart of hearts that I will still not actually have this mystical, imagined amount of “free” time. Even so, I am still excited for my coursework at Brandeis. This fall I will be taking three classes: Introduction to Literary and Cultural Studies, Race, Desire, & the Literary Imagination, and Gender & the Genealogy of the Novel. Brandeis also has a joint program with Women’s Studies, so I plan on cross-completing courses in the departments to get a second Master’s in Women’s Studies.

Friends/Lifestyle:

On a less academic note (but not entirely since humans are social creatures who need a reprieve from their exhausting graduate work) I am – to put it vulnerably – nervous about making new friends. I realize that school is one of the easiest places to make new friends, but it’s still stressful. I feel like this every time I leave an old place for a new place, and every time it ends up working out, but I cannot help lament that I do not want to let my “old” friends go. And of course, I don’t have to and we will keep in touch – conferences are good for that, and also cell phones. But I am still really sad to say goodbye to the wonderful people I met in Albuquerque.

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What do you call writing group without the writing? FRIENDS.

I have even said to them “I don’t want to make new friends! I just won’t!” which not only sounds insane, but also won’t be true. Moreover, I still have friends in Boston from when I lived there before. (Shout out to them for helping with the apartment hunt!) That in itself, though, is another point of transition. Many of them stuck around Boston for the last three years after undergrad. I, on the other hand, moved to Vermont and then New Mexico. So now, a few of them are ready to move on themselves, and I selfishly tell them they’re not allowed to go. Again, I don’t want to make new friends! (If any Brandeis people read this, I’m lying. I want to be your friend). And since I haven’t lived in Boston for a few years and will be living in a totally different part of town, in a completely different phase of my life, it really does feel like starting over, albeit with some friendly support.

I am a pretty emotional person (as you can probably already tell), but to put it simply, I understandably feel excited and nervous, but right now more nervous than not. I’m just going to keep telling myself everything will magically fall into place once I find an apartment.

Note: Diana did eventually find a place to live in the Boston area!